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Workplace Bullying Affects Nearly Half of US Workers. It’s Time We Did Something About It

Labor advocates want a nationwide Healthy Workplace Bill.

(Photo: Bill Diodato)

Many are hoping that 2017 represented a turning point in the fight against workplace harassment, as the #MeToo moment put a spotlight on sexual misconduct. Now some labor advocates are hoping that the momentum of #MeToo helps to fuel an additional campaign against a different and overlapping type of harassment: workplace bullying.

While there’s been increased attention paid to the bullying of children in recent years, there hasn’t been the same kind of focus on bullying among adults, but statistics indicate that it’s a major problem. According to one 2008 study, nearly 75 percent of participants have witnessed workplace bullying at their job and 47 percent have been bullied at some point in their career. Another 27 percent said they had been bullied within the last 12 months. In a 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 72 percent of the respondents said that their employer either condones or encourages the behavior.

There’s no universal definition of it, but the WBI defines it as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or

Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or

Verbal abuse.

WBI sprang from a campaign that was started by Ruth and Gary Namie, a husband-and-wife team of psychologists. In the late 1990s, Ruth worked in a psychiatric clinic and was bullied by her supervisor. To their surprise, the Namies discovered there was very little Ruth could do about the situation. Employment discrimination laws existed, but they didn’t cover things like your boss screaming at you daily or a co-worker trying to sabotage your imminent promotion. If you hadn’t been targeted for abuse because of your race, sex or national origin, or because you blew the whistle on something related to the company, there wasn’t a legal avenue for you to pursue.

The Namies also discovered that there were no organizations working on the issue in the United States, so they started the Work Doctor at the WBI website, where they wrote about the issue, drawing heavily on existing research from countries where it was taken seriously (such as Sweden, Belgium and France). They also created a toll-free hotline for workers to call, counseled thousands of people on the issue, and hosted the first US conference dedicated to the subject of workplace bullying.

At the end of 2001, the campaign moved from California to the state of Washington. At Western Washington University, Gary Namie taught the first US college course on workplace bullying, and the campaign evolved into WBI after a group of research students volunteered to do more survey research.

That same year, Suffolk University law professor David Yamada — one of the only academics working on the issue in the United States at the time, and a presenter at the aforementioned workplace bullying conference — drafted the text for a Healthy Workplace Bill, a piece of legislation that defines “an abusive work environment,” holds the employer accountable and provides victims with legal redress. An “abusive work environment” is an employment condition where an employer acts with intent to cause pain or distress to a worker, subjects them to abuse that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both. The bill requires proof of either demonstrable health or economic harm to the plaintiff.

In 2003, a Healthy Workplace Bill was introduced in California. Now similar bills have been introduced in more than half of the states, in over 100 versions, and have been sponsored by over 400 lawmakers. The campaign for the Healthy Workplace Bill is led by state coordinators who all start with the same bill language and recruit local volunteers to help educate lawmakers on the issue.

Although no state has passed the bill so far, there have been some partial victories. In 2014, California passed a bill that required sexual harassment training to include information about “abusive conduct” in the workplace. That same year, Tennessee introduced a law that requires public-sector employers to adopt policies that prevent abuse. In 2015, Utah passed a bill that established training for state workers that defined specific kinds of bullying.

Massachusetts resident Deb Falzoi became involved in the movement after she was bullied at her former workplace, a local university. She couldn’t figure out why the behavior was legal and, after doing some research, she discovered Yamada’s work. At that point, Yamada had already drafted the bill, but it lacked backing. Now Falzoi works as the marketing director for the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill, which would create a legal claim for targets of bullying in the state. She told Truthout that while training employees on workplace bullying is important, it doesn’t accomplish much if there are no consequences for the perpetrators. “Employers can train managers on what workplace bullying is and their workplace bullying policies, but without enforcing those policies through accountability and consequences for bullies, employees are still stuck with toxic cultures they don’t deserve,” said Falzoi. “Training is meaningless without enforcement.”

Falzoi said Massachusetts has come further in implementing a Healthy Workplace Bill than most states. In January 2017 Massachusetts State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan introduced one in the form of Senate Bill S.1013. The bill is currently sitting in the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the deadline to move it toward the Senate and House is February 10.

Advocates like Falzoi are encouraging residents to pressure their lawmakers before the deadline and before local employers are able to mount an offensive against legislation that would potentially hold them responsible for these kinds of abuses. It’s a valid concern, as variations of the bill have already seen defeat in 29 state legislatures. Critics contend that such legislation would lead to frivolous lawsuits that could tank businesses.

“We all agree with the concept that there shouldn’t be jerks in the workplace, but the issue is whether we can legislate that,” said business-side labor lawyer Rick Grimaldi in a 2013 article about the push for legislation. “The whole concept is difficult to get your head around when you think about how expansive this could be. Every disgruntled employee becomes a potential plaintiff.”

Falzoi says these kinds of concerns don’t really add up when you consider that existing workplace discrimination laws haven’t led to a huge amount of haphazard legal action. “We have all these sexual harassment cases happening right now and we don’t see a lot of false accusations,” she said.

Gillian Mason is the coordinator of development and education at the Massachusetts chapter of Jobs With Justice, the nationwide union rights organization. She told Truthout that every single complaint she has heard from a worker has involved workplace bullying in some capacity. “Almost all wage theft claims and discrimination claims are accompanied by claims of workplace bullying,” she said. “It’s like extra added ammunition for [bullies.]”

Mason’s assertion lines up with many of the high-profile sexual harassment scandals of recent months. The infamous stories involving film producer Harvey Weinstein are marked not only by disturbing tales of sexual assaults and sexual harassment, but also by abusive emotional behavior. “I’ll tell you what I did know,” Weinstein’s brother Bob told The Hollywood Reporter:

Harvey was a bully, Harvey was arrogant, he treated people like shit all the time. That I knew. And I had to clean up for so many of his employee messes. People that came in crying to my office: “Your brother said this, that and the other.” And I’d feel sick about it.

Last winter, it was revealed that Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold used taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment allegations. It was later reported that, in addition to making sexually inappropriate comments, Farenthold regularly went into fits of rage, slammed his fists on desks, berated aides and referred to them as “fucktards.”

Mason described local scenarios that mirrored these high-profile cases. She recounted one instance in which a worker said a chair had been thrown at them by a supervisor; moments later, the same supervisor tried to hug them and tell the person how much they were valued. “A lot of this kind of abuse is psychological,” said Mason.

As the Trump administration continues to roll back regulations that have historically protected working people, legislation like the Healthy Workplace Bill could emerge as a crucial component of the country’s upcoming labor battles.

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